No more rough trade from the unions

The TUC needs a new image to win new members, so instead of confrontati on it's preaching the message of 'social partnership' with businesses and ethnic groups. Helen Hague reports
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The Independent Online
As Trade Union delegates meet in Blackpool this week, there is likely to be much talk of social partnership - and the need to reach out to workers who have not yet signed up.

The need is great. Union membership is at a post-war low: around 6.75 million people now belong to unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. The average age of the British worker is now 31; the average trade union member is 46.

Unions recognise they must attract new members or face continued decline. Young black people are among those the movement is keen to recruit to swell its dwindling ranks.

This summer, the emphasis on social partnership and the need to expand union frontiers came together in a day-long festival celebrating cultural diversity.

The TUC's Respect Festival, in Finsbury Park, London, also saw a coming together of unions and business sponsors that could mark a watershed in the movement's drive to maintain its influence. The approach chimes with strategies being mapped out by Labour in the run-up to the next election. A pop single was also released to tie in with the festival at the end of July: TUC general secretary John Monks belted out the soul classic Respect in the recording studio alongside established musicians such as Angie Brown from Bizarre Inc and Jimmy Somerville.

The free festival, with four stages for musicians, bands and dance troupes, attracted 80,000 people - twice as many as expected. There was no trouble and around 20 per cent of the audience, which included families and young children, were black.

Speeches were kept to a minimum; people had not turned out to hear the kind of rhetoric that may be echoing around the conference hall this week.

It was an exercise in outreach, highlighting the TUC's commitment to stamp out racism, promote equal opportunity and demonstrate that union membership means more than turning up at sparsely attended branch meetings. It was in many ways a soft sell. However, research carried out before the festival took place showed 29 per cent of Londoners aged between 16 and 30 had heard it was happening. Of those, 26 per cent knew it was being staged by the TUC and, of those, 63 per cent knew it was to do with anti-racism and celebrating cultural diversity. Sponsorship by Time Out, the London listings magazine, helped spread the word.

The social partnership link-up with business was, in itself, an important first for the TUC. Coca-Cola and the white-collar union MSF jointly sponsored the exhibition marquee, where unions set out their stall. In a canny piece of planning, those who had just come for the music had to go through the marquee to enter a prize draw for two tickets to New York donated by British Airways.

Unions reported a steady flow of people picking up leaflets and stopping by to chat. From the Transport and General Workers Union, which set up its own "village" on the site, to Unison, with its double-decker bus, the movement says it has signed up new members as a result of the festival.

Respect did not generate the kind of media coverage that Womad, the world music festival, and other celebrations secured this summer. But the Big Breakfast, GMTV and the music paper NME were among the outlets in which a side of trade unionism not normally seen in the media - "positive branding" - was on show.

Mike Power, the TUC's campaigns officer, says the festival gave a high- profile boost to the movement's anti-racism stance. He cites it alongside other TUC campaigns against the job-seeker's allowance and the Asylum Bill as an important strand in the union's drive to reposition itself in the Nineties.

However, the move to embrace a social partnership with business is an equally potent force in today's thinking at Congress House. "We have shown that we can begin to open dialogues with companies in a new and quite dynamic way in dealing with areas such as equal opportunities," says Mr Power.

The Respect Festival raised pounds 150,000 through sponsorship, with the TGWU and Ford, old sparring partners in pay negotiations, jointly sponsoring a stage. British Telecom, the Body Shop, Littlewoods and Marks and Spencer were among the other business backers.

M&S, which does not recognise unions but is keen on equal opportunities, co-sponsored a stage but also provided a pony for children's rides during the afternoon. As one union member quipped: "Just as the TUC is trying to shake off its cart horse image, a non-union company comes and gives it back to us. But at least the cart horse has learnt to dance."

Who knows? If the dialogue continues, a collective agreement at M&S may be a few years down the line. At least, getting the company involved in a festival is likely to prove a lot more productive than trying to mount a consumer boycott over lack of union recognition.